Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?

Q: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I have been asked this question in a number of interviews, and, yet, I still don’t know how to answer it.  I wonder why some hiring committees ask it, and I can’t help but get the feeling that this is a gotcha! question; how would I even begin to answer this? I feel like it’s a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” question.

SM: You are right. This question, certainly an old and trusted one, used by many interviewers and asked in many interviews, can be a difficult and possibly dangerous one to answer (honestly). But, it is one that you should have an answer to, before you go on your interview.

Why do interviewers ask this question? I think that most interviewers would want to see something of an upward progression, in those five years, but when no upward progression is to be had in a particular library or particular role, than saying that you want to move into a management position can make you seem overly ambitious, or like someone who is just using the position as a stepping stone. But, aren’t most (if not all) positions stepping stones to something bigger and better? And, shouldn’t they be?

Personally, I dislike speculative questions like this and don’t see how the answers can provide much useful information.  A better question to ask is: what are your short-term and long-term professional goals?

Here are a few possible scenarios, based on honest but unlikely answers to the question (i.e., you probably shouldn’t answer the question this way):

Scenario 1
Answer: I see myself working in this library, in the role that I am being interviewed for because it is the only job that I want and I cannot see that I would ever be interested in anything else.
Pros: you are loyal
Cons: you are not ambitious enough

Scenario 2
Answer: I see myself learning everything I possibly can, and then moving up to be a head of a department or assistant director and eventually the director of the library.
Pros: you are exceptionally ambitious and motivated
Cons: you are not loyal and even worse, you want other people’s jobs

Scenario 3
Answer: I would like to be gainfully and happily employed, here or somewhere else. I just want a job. Please give me a job.
Pros: you are  honest, albeit desperate
Cons: you might just be a smartass, albeit an honest smartass

These scenarios probably won’t help you very much, but they do help to demonstrate the ridiculous nature of the question, and the catch-22 that it puts you in, no matter how you answer. I suggest the following answer, which is intentionally ambiguous and honest in that no one can predict the future:

I see myself working as a librarian, hopefully in this library and in this role, but definitely as a [fill in the blank] librarian, because that is what I love to do. But, who knows, a lot can happen in five years.

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